In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic drastically changed many people’s lives, with some using their new found free time to learn a new skill. Taking the time to immerse yourself in literature and reading every word George Orwell ever wrote may not be the way most people chose to use their isolation time. But then most people are not Darcy Brown, who wasn’t in training for Mastermind, but rather preparing for his role as Squealer in Animal Farm.
After a forced hiatus for performers and theatre goers, the sense of excitement surrounding the return of shake & stir’s award-winning adaptation of Animal Farm is palpable.
So we have one very well versed cast member, Brown’s Squealer being the propaganda Minister is delightfully ironic. It is Brown’s first time with shake and stir, though possibly the first of many, as Brown is blown away not just by the passion of the company, but by the way he has been welcomed into the fold.
“This is a wonderful company to work for and they value you and they will take care of you. When things shut down at the start of last year and no one knew quite what was happening, they sent me a lovely hamper and they assured me, we are going to do this at some point, we want you on board, so. I thought other theatre companies take note, this is really, really impressive,” Brown says of his initial interactions with the theatre company.
Other companies should take note indeed. As shake and stir find themselves with a surprise hit, in taking a novel which is a gritty, disturbing tale and turning it into a passionate theatrical romp where the cast enthusiastically portrays the animal characters in a spirited, physical performance, bringing the farm and its tragedy to life.
Shake and stir co-artistic director and co-creator of the Animal Farm adaptation, Nelle Lee is keen to be back on stage, and back on the road as the ensemble embarks on a six month tour of the country. It is not just about performing, but performing for and engaging with audiences, an essential ethos of the company, “It’s important to be able to offer programs to regional Australia as well as those metro cities. For a company like ours, it’s essential that we maintain that touring circuit, which is such a big part of what we do.”
Of course, touring at the moment is a risky proposition. Every time it seems we are out of the woods, cases of coronavirus pop up and can suddenly put things on hold. But weighing it up, the company wanted to move ahead and have made some allowances in the program in case they are faced with a lockdown or closed borders.
It would seem preparation is somewhat of a theme, and while many may see the choice of Animal Farm as poignant, considering the state of the world, even pre-pandemic Lee felt the time was right to resurrect the adaptation. There will be some nods to Trump in there, certainly the tag line of ‘Making Animal Farm Great Again, Again’ hints that the Trump presidency, which many described as Orwellian, was on their minds when choosing what to take on the road.
In his year of all things Orwell, Brown had plenty of observations about how the writer is so easy to digest, in any era, for most people. “Orwell always feels like he was writing this week or last week. I don’t think I have ever had to go back over a line of Orwell to try and understand it.”
While seeing a story play out, with a horrifying reflection to our own real-life experience, might be an extreme example, Lee very much wants any show she adapts to be relatable to an audience, while still staying true to the original work. A difficult juggling act at times, but “It’s terrifying,” she says of this particular adaptation, “but we didn’t have to change too much.”
Like many of us, Lee read the book in school and while she found it “sad and terrifying,” as a young teen she didn’t quite understand why she was reading about a farm. But the story lingered in her mind and then as a Uni student the meaning clicked and she thought it perfect to adapt for the theatre, “It shows how much of a master of description and allegory Orwell was to speak to 13 and 14 year olds and unknowingly stay with them through their whole journey into adulthood. It’s such a very well crafted book, it’s atmospheric but still to the point and really visceral which makes really great theatre.”
Such a powerful story, which delves into such heavy themes, might seem an odd choice for some. But as Lee saw the fact that the story is told through metaphors, with animals taking the place of humans was a genius way to entertain as well as inform. In Animal Farm, Old Major envisions a utopia where the animals shake off the shackles of their human owners and live free as equals. But what they get is very different, much like Stalin’s Russia, upon which the book was heavily based.
Brown’s study led him to The Freedom of the Press, which was intended to be the original preface to Animal Farm but was not published until many years after his death. In this, Orwell makes it clear it was not just communism he was aiming criticism at;
“Trading one ideology for another is not necessarily progress. He (Orwell) said this great thing, the danger is the gramophone mind, regardless of the record that’s being played at any given time.” It is impressive how well versed Brown is. Again mirrored by how skilled in the rules of the regime, his character, Squealer becomes.
This role is arguably more powerful than that of the regime leader as it is Squealer’s words that the animals follow. The propaganda guy is who makes an extreme ideology palatable. Orwell understood the power of words and utilised this in the character of Squealer especially.
“Everyone is familiar with the language, everyone is repeating the slogans so the sort of non-sequiturs become even more blatant as the play progresses until he doesn’t even really need to try to square circles … It’s all you know, people hold contractions in their head and they don’t think twice about it,” Brown sees his character for who he is, the person creating the smokescreen, hammering home the message and making the animals doubt their own senses.
Brown is keen for audiences to understand they are coming to be entertained first and foremost, as much as a discussion of oppressive regimes might be a delightful evening for some.
Brown laughs as we head into a less serious direction in our conversation and talk about the actual performance, “I don’t want people to think they are coming to a lecture on party politics, because it’s quite a physical show … it’s very scrappy and it’s physical and it’s funny …”
No doubt Orwell was trying to achieve this delicate balance as well, with novels selling for entertainment value, more than readers searching a moral lesson. So shake and stir have a remarkable achievement on their hands, taking this subject matter and turning it into a theatrical masterpiece. The cast is as vivacious, dexterous and witty as they are committed to the horror of the transformation on the farm.
“It’s an exhausting show to rehearse and perform, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun, and it feels like we’re getting away with this, we are in the room throwing feathers in the air and there’s mud all over us and we’re crawling on all fours making animal noises. And they are paying us to do this? Are they aware this is what we are doing?” Brown describes the fun had at rehearsals, like a kid in a candy store.
“It feels like a very powerful, very fun, very hopefully sort of energising piece of theatre to spend an evening at,” Brown finishes his sell, which is by now not needed. The picture he paints needs nothing more added.
There has been a lot of discussion about what the theatre needs to be if it is to survive. Certainly, there are plenty of people who still consider the theatre too exclusive or heaven forbid, boring. Brown makes the observation that “by virtue of it (theatre performances) being back and it being taken away for so long, it is an event and there is a hunger.” So in that hiatus where theatre was taken away some people, not even necessarily people who attended the theatre pre-pandemic, now realise that what they had was already good enough.
As a passionate performer, Brown says, “that’s a responsibility too that I think we all take very seriously of actually creating and delivering something worth everyone’s time, you know”
The play has already started its way around Australia and will go until September. So far, so good with no need for changes to the schedule. Bravely forging ahead, shake and stir are leading a triumphant return of a theatre tour, providing audiences from Toowoomba to Hobart with the entertainment they have been craving, any moral lessons notwithstanding.
I will leave the last to Lee, who echoes the excitement felt by so many, “It’s really exciting to go back on the road and there are going to be restrictions on what we can do but you know, it’s still doing what we love with people that we love doing it with.”
shake & stir present Animal Farm
Adaptor Nick Skubij
Creators Ross Balbuziente, Nelle Lee, Nick Skubij
Director Michael Futcher
Designer Josh McIntosh
Lighting Designer Jason Glenwright
Sound Designer Guy Webster
Featuring Darcy Brown, Tim Dashwood, Nelle Lee, Gideon Mzembe, Steven Rooke.
Season from 19th April to 19th September.
For more information and tickets visit shakeandstir.com.au